Friday, June 22, 2012

Balance dilema - Part 2

Character feature "value" measurements is an element I find missing in a lot of games when they look for balance in the system.  I see "value" as the worth of something at a given point in time.  Versus say cost which is what was paid to adquire something.  Value is the key element in realtime balancing of a game versus say preemptive balance in which balance is preset in rules and character settings.  Value changes from time to time while presets don't.  A machine gun for which there are no bullets has the same value as a bat.  What's the value of a great climbing skill if there are no walls to climb, or pick locks in a dungeon with no doors?

In the post about activity tracking vs resource tracking I mentioned the difference between games that track what the character can do vs games that track what the character has power to do.  Now I'll talk about value and how activity tracking influences it, as well as balance and inevitably min-maxing.

Just a couple of days ago I was talking with a friend and he put forward an event that occurred to him during and adventure.  His magic user was facing a goblin and a snake pit.  How to survive?  Engage the goblin or risk the snake pit's poisonous vipers?  He knew the mage had no spells  left and only a dagger, and so did the GM.  The goblin on the other hand doesn't know this.  The value of his spells in combat is null from his perspective, but quite powerful from the goblin's (if the GM plays it well, more on this when I recap on fairness and balanced play).

Working on this example lets look at defining character feature value.  Clearly there's an underlying value set by character class/configuration and level/development.  I'm using the term class, configuration, level and development to cover games that have or lack classes and those that have or lack levels.  This underlying value we can call character strength, and it is generally derived from rules. Rules can limit how strong a character is at a certain point along its progression path.  For example how many spells would be available at the start of the adventure or that day in particular.

Yet character value isn't a constant.  Its value changes as the character advances through the adventure.  It's strength diminishes as weapons, spells, items and all sorts of expendables are worn out.  The character feature "value" drops.

Finally and most importantly value depends on context.  If your skills, spells, weapons, items and what not are not applicable for a certain moment in the adventure you net value is null.  On the other hand a creative player can turn a cero value moment like the one in the example to a win scenario by simply bullshitting his way out of it.  He does some hokus pokus, fools the goblin into believing he's got some power and walks right by.

In past articles I've been pretty agressive against the terms "fair" and "balanced" not because I don't think they're important or because I'm some sort of evil and sadist GM.  I'm against "fairness" and "balance" because it is usually used to pamper characters and thus players.

For me the mage's encounter with the goblin is fair, hard yes, but also fair.  What I do find "unfair" in a lot of GMs is putting their knowledge into the monster.  To be "fair" the GM doesn't need to do a triple die roll plus table lookup to find the exact match for the encounter.  The GM HAS to play the monster just as it is.  The goblin does NOT know the mage is out of spells.  Only the GM knows that.  To play otherwise IS unfair.  There is no balance if you look at the encounter combat wise, but the mage is way smarter.  If the player narrows down the options to just combat then there is imbalance.  If the GM forces an encounter then he IS being unfair.  If you look a the big picture the encounter is balanced and fair.

This takes me to the key question in my Balance Dilema posts: "Is it worth establishing balance by restricting what a character can be?"  I'll look at this question from two angles:

  • Preemptive balance : that which is set into the rules and define what a character class can or can not have.
  • Realtime (tabletop) balance : that which seeks balance by measuring character value in game at the tabletop.
In the next part of this series I'll go deeper into the two models and look at the pros and cons and why I think realtime tabletop balance is simply better than preemptive balance.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Resource tracking vs activity tracking

What your game tracks as stats influences how well the game can be balanced.  The amount of values is not so important as the significance of those values.  To explain this I'll coin two terms before going on.  One is resource tracking and the other is activity tracking.  Resource tracking concerns itself with tracking values that are the requisite for an activity.  For example mana for spells.  Instead of tracking exactly what spells can be cast in a day we track the resource required to casts spells.  On the other hand activity tracking concerns itself with tracking the actual activity to be done.  For example having two sleep spells available today.   Another example is the paladin curing disease two times per day.  You're not quite sure what powers that ability it just happens.

Dissociated mechanics are clearly based on activity tracking.  You're not actually focused on keeping tabs on the power, force or energy that grants that ability.  The character just happens to have it.  A resource tracking version of the paladin's cure disease would be : the sun god grants you 200 faith points.  Then your character is granted a power called cure diseases that costs 90 faith points.  The character then does a cure disease and feels his body depleted of the all mighty sun god's faith, but he still feels strong and capable of doing yet another cure.  Progression in faith points is what allows the paladin to cast 3 cure disease per day later on.  It's not that it happens overnight when he reaches 12th level.  He's been working on it, increasing his faith, he can feel it closer.  He even tries prior to 12th level, but fails.  He feels confident, but something is still lacking.  Those extra 10 points that the player and GM know are missing.

What does all this have to do with balance, and why is resource tracking better than activity tracking at determining balance?  Well for starters if you compare two characters resource wise you can say this character has more power in a field than the other.  For example mana.  Two characters with equal mana are similar.  They might have different spells, but the same potential.  This is in the understanding that mana cost per spell is relative to spell strength.  If one has twice the mana then there is an imbalance.  Activity tracking also has the disadvantage of bien susceptive to context and settings.  If you have two sleep spells and one charm spell memorized and you meet a creature that is not susceptive  to sleep or charm your effective strength is cero.  On the other hand if you have a resource of 100 mana points and 8 spells you can choose at that moment something that is useful.  You're 100 mana points are still worth something.  The paladin's cure disease power is only useful if there are sick characters, but 200 faith points can be used for other paladin powers that rely on faith.

Resource tracking also helps to decouple game elements.  Decoupling means disconnecting the effects of changes to one part of the game from affecting another.  Imagine each resource as a currency.  You can assign a cost to each thing based on its impact.  Spells for example have a mana cost that can be adjusted in the same way the price of a product can be adjusted.  Activity tracking doesn't allow for that.  All 3dr level spells are accessible once you attain 3rd level spells.   Even if some are stronger than others.  Resource tracking is like going to the cookie isle in the supermarket and seeing the cookies.  They're all cookies.  They're all in the cookie price range, but some are more expensive than the others so you choose based on cost.  Activity tracking is like going to the same cookie isle and getting to choose two packages.  Which do you choose?  Well in my case I'd choose the expensive ones with more chocolate.

With resource tracking if you find a spell is being abused you can just increase the mana cost for it.  You don't need to change its level.  That is a very specific balance adjustment done on the spell.  The spell is effectively decoupled from the rest of the spells and the magic mechanism as a whole.  With activity tracking you have to move the spell to another level or remove it from the list because the rules say I have two third level spells and I want that one.

If you want a setting with more or less magic all you need to do with resource tracking is devaluate the coin to make magic scarce or revaluate the coin to make it abundant.  With activity tracking things get harder.  You can't have one half spell slot for first level.  Should there be no magic for 1st level wizard?  See how it begins to get complicated.

Resource tracking has the benefit of requiring things to have a cost and thus a value.  This will be covered fully in the Balance dilema Part 2 article.  Enough to say for now that this allows you to put a real number to the character's strength.  A numeric value that can be compared to others on a more objective way and to do so during the game session to get real time balancing of the game.


I've been looking at ways to make the amount of actions per round seem something more reasonable.  Instead of defining the amount of actions a character can take in a unit of time I'm looking to define the potential for actions and then set a cost to each action.

Instead of saying the character has two attacks per round I say the character has a certain amount of fatigue points that allow him about two attacks per round.  The character doesn't know he has two attacks every 15 seconds.  He knows that he can sweep his sword about two times every 15 seconds without having to catch his breath.

Handling actions this way seems to be a bit too crunchy math wise, but it also solves a great deal of issues like movement, spell casting, dual weapons, armor and shield usage among others.  If done correctly it would allow for precalculated numbers that are easy to use while still allowing for last minute flexibility.

I won't go into extreme detail now as I haven't nailed it down completely, but:

  • You have fatigue points
  • Depending on the weapon you have to pay a certain amount of points per round to use it.  This can easily be calculated and written down on the character sheet.
  • Armor and shield adds to this cost.
  • Movement adds to this cost.
  • If you exceed your fatigue limit you become exhausted and must recover.
Fatigue points are thus an asset that can be set as costs for certain activities.  Training can reduce this cost and improve amount of attacks per round.  Fatigue points can also depend on character attributes.  This makes it interesting for players who want their character stand out or look more personalized.  As a type of currency it is an unifying value for different types of activities: attack, magic, climb, move, bend bars, heck even hold breath.


Game session review; the good, the bad and the rewritable

Last friday I ran the longest adventure yet with Era, the game I'm developing.  It was an exciting running it with a group of players that hadn't had any real exposition to the rules.  I was worried as to how well we would start off.  How quickly we could get the characters up and running and how the mechanics would work out.

What can I list as observations and lessons learned?
  • Setup was quick.  The players had a session with me a week earlier where they developed their characters without any actual stats.  Just describing what they were.  This helped a lot when getting down to the numbers.
  • Character templates helped a lot.  Although it's a point buy system I created templates that looked D&Dish so players familiar with the game could get a quick start.  We just rolled ability scores and determined initial role points.  Then selected from the templates that fitted those values and trimmed from there.
  • Combat.  Oh combat was exciting and deadly.  The game mechanics don't allow for an increase in hit points ever.  The improvements are in combat skills and a certain amount of endurance called stamina.  That aside a well placed blow will stun you or kill you outright.  This made for a quick fight.  Monsters dropped or were stunned and killed quickly.  The players handled their cover and spells well and they survived even after taking a couple of blows.  I really liked the parry and dodge mechanics.  Made for some fun action.  The pain threshold mechanism worked well and didn't slow down play.  I took advantage to stun creatures and add a spin to combat.
  • Spells.  Well that worked nice too, but there are things I didn't like from the rules.  The initial idea of spell schools and levels doesn't truly charm me.  I'll cover that in the next section.  We ended up making spells on the fly which were very handy and fun to play.  There were some powerful "first level" spells yet the adventure was still challenging since the mana mechanism worked well and lasted for about one encounter.  An interesting observation: one spell allowed the spell caster to raise attribute scores, but Era grants bonuses based on averages between certain scores.  So a boost in one attribute didn't result in excessive benefits for the caster.  This dampening effect was set in the rules to hinder min-max players and so far seems to be working well.
  • While the two characters were radically different and one was played by the min-max type player obsessed with magic users they both had enough to do in the adventure.  They made a good team  and overall they enjoyed the game without worries of one overshadowing the other.
Lessons and rewrites
  • Spells!  Spells are getting a complete rewrite.  Levels and schools are going out the door.  Spells will come packaged according to the settings.  The witches of dark forest have their list.  The priests of the shadow priests have theirs. The marshland wildlings have their spells.  I'm working on a spell flux mechanism to control the relative power of characters and through it control their progression and spell power level and availability to characters.  The spells we created in the game by mixing different aspects of magic are not compatible with the initial grouping of powers and effects.  Limiting the character to certain schools would go against this type of creativity I enjoy and am looking for in the game.
  • I'm going to replace the attacks per round to actions per round.  Sneak peek I've got an idea for a fatigue based mechanism I'll be posting sometime this week.  Some spells take actions to cast while others may take rounds.  Magic users should be able to make many actions per round like the fighter.  Maybe just stab once with their dagger, but cast many action spells.  A good fighter might get three attacks with his weapon of choice, but one attack with a magical device.

Balance dilema

Just little over a month ago Monte Cook put up a topic for discussion that questioned if it was possible to make a customizable game that didn't lead to optimizations.  The sentence as he wrote it : "It is difficult (not impossible) to create a character creation system for an rpg that allows for customization of capabilities that doesn't greatly encourage optimization."  By optimization we mean min-max.

I think this statement could be rewritten as "Is it difficult if not impossible to create a character creation system for RPGs that is balanced while allowing for customization capabilities?"  Balanced characters or not optimized ones seem to put a constraint on customization capabilities.  The problem as presented by the question is that more capability options leads to greater optimization.  At first glance it seems that controlling optimization means reducing options.  If you can't customize your character so much you can't thus optimize so much.

This question came at a time I was finishing off the character generation system for Era.  One objective among others is to develop a game that has no classes and no levels.  As I found the concept of classes and levels way to limiting to the potential of a game and a campaign.  Yet without classes and levels there would have to be another way to supply customization options and improvements as the character advances.  At the time the game had a pseudo level mechanism that has since been ditched and replaced with one based on a self balancing mechanism.

The answer I gave Monte to that question is the seed to the recent posts about balance, class design and other controversial threads that have even ended up labeling me as a troll. The answer was in a way a question in itself.  Yes it is difficult to build such a system.  But the real issue would be proving it.  The problem is not coming up with the system itself.  The problem is proving that it doesn't greatly encourage optimization.

You can create a character creation system that "doesn't greatly encourage optimization".  You play test it a bit and do some adjustments.  Now it feels even better.  Then you play test again and adjust a bit more.  When you feel it's ready you publish it and then it breaks.  Why?  Because it was poorly designed?  No.  It was well designed, but not tested for all options because that's impossible.  It becomes even more impossible the more customization capabilities you add to the game.  Play test complexity and cost growths exponentially with character class complexity.  

This lead me to think of balance as preemptive or tabletop (or runtime as I personally call it).  Preemptive balance is that which the game designer seeks during game design.  It is embedded in the character generation system and is meant to be a force that allows for customization while discouraging optimization.  

Some thoughts on preemptive balance:

  • Long term uselessness.  Provides out of the box balance, but does not guarantee the discouragement of optimization down the road.  Will break the more customization options we add.
  • Counter productive.  Trying to define these rules is counter productive.  While it gives the GM's life a bit easier in the beginning, it also makes game design more demanding.  Yet it might actually not provide any long term benefits.  Remember all those min-max players out there the GM ends up dealing with?  It also takes time to develop and test these rules and it takes even more time the more options the game gives in terms of customization.
  • Strongly coupled mechanics.  Strongly coupled mechanics might sound like a good thing.  It has the word "strong" in it.  But it is actually a very bad thing.  Strongly coupled mechanics means the operation of one part of the game strongly depends on the other.  Change one part and the other is directly affected.  So if you reach a balance based on how magic works or how weapon specialization works and then you change that you break balance quickly.
  • Dissociated mechanics.  Preemptive balance also leads to the addition of rules like the dragon lord class gains the dragon breath ability once a day when the character reaches 10th level.  These extras are added to give the character class a bonus in something the designer feels is lacking.  The quick and dirty solution of including these "bonuses" to balance game leads to greater complications down the road.
On the other hand we have balance which we seek during game time at the tabletop.  This is the one I've decided to embrace and support.  Leading to the controversial position that initial balance is not important.  Well it is.  It is certainly necessary, but character development, creativity and imagination are more important in the beginning.  As we'll see in the second part I say create first and balance later.  That captivates the player into the story rather than discourages him by preemptive and limiting balance rules.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Balance and Spotlight

Recently I had an interesting discussion regarding the importance of balance and spotlight time.  This lead me to some thoughts regarding balance, spotlight time, rules and creativity.  Let's start talking about spotlight time and its relevance to game play.  Spotlight time is important because it allows players the opportunity to star in the adventure.  If one player steals the spotlight time the other players will become bored as the GM is pretty much playing with a single player.  By having a particularly strong character said player can steal spotlight time from other players as his character can do a great deal more than the others.

To prevent this, games and in particular D&D look for balance among character classes.  Usually established as a set of rules in the game, balance sets out to grant players an equal opportunity to star in the game.  But is balance really necessary?  Is it attainable?  And if so is it attainable by the current rule based mechanisms.

Here's the way I see it.  Simple and leaving aside all prior theory posted in this article.  Forget balance and forget fairness.  Better yet don't forget them, screw'em.  Who needs balance and fairness?  Balance and fairness are all against adventure, creativity, and excitement.

Adventure is about going out and taking a risk.  What's fair about that?  If you lose you die.  That's it.  You wanted the dragon's treasure.  Now you complain because it wasn't fair that the dragon killed you.  Tough luck.

Some may claim the GM is not being fair.  The GM's job isn't to be fair.  The GM's job is to be objective.  To look at the big picture and say this is where the story is going.  To make you sweat as a player.  To put plot twists and unexpected things and things that don't make your life easy.  But they do make the adventure exciting and that is what this game is about.  The GM isn't out to kill you.  He's out to make you suffer.  To sweat.  To feel how close you come to death.  Yea and some times to kill you.  But face it, if the risk of death wasn't latent in every adventure it wouldn't be an adventure.  Obviously a GM who levels the whole party with a breath weapon as they leave the inn isn't being unfair, he's being an idiot.  But that's got nothing to do with fairness and everything to do with bad DMing.

Unfairness is a necessary part to a good adventure.  Life isn't fair so why should your adventure be fair too?  Some would say they don't want to replay life in the game.  That's why they're playing the game.  To get away from everyday real life.  Yes, but that doesn't mean you get away from life to play a lame game session.  You go to the movies to immerse yourself in another story not to see a lame movie.  You want to see an exciting movie, a movie with characters fleshed out, a movie where characters suffer it through.

Ripley was lied to and made to land on LV-426 by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation or risk loosing all payment benefits.  The science officer was a robot mole.  She lost all her crew and then inside the rescue ship she finds herself with the alien after blowing up the cargo ship.  How fair is that? I mean it was one big bug and there were bigger spots to hide in the cargo ship.  Why tuck itself in the salvage ship?  Was it smart?  Was it aware something was going on?  How did it know that was the salvage ship?  On top of being a soulless and efficient killer it's also smart?  C'mon that's not fair.  Guess what, it isn't, but it's damn exciting.

Then she gets rescued.  Wew, what a break.  Only to go back to LV-426.  Why?  Well if you see the extended version her daughter is dead of old age.  She was going to get back to her 11th birthday and she missed her burial.  Oh and did you catch the part about never married.  Tough luck Ripley no grandchildren either.  On her way back to LV-426 nobody listens to her.  The half assed commander of  the mission lets the team get creamed in less than five minutes.  What's that I hear Hudson?  Oh you were two weeks from getting out, well that's just too fucking bad.  Yup, it isn't fair, I know I know.  Then the aliens find the roof passage that wasn't on the blue prints.  I mean how unfair is that.  They had blocked everything.  James Cameron is one sick GM.  On top of that he lets the little girl get lost and caught by aliens.  Just as they were almost home free!  The only fair part in that section of the movie is seeing Burke get caught by aliens.  Enjoyed that, jejeje. That aside its conflict after conflict.  The girl gets lost, they go after her.  Even Bishop is genuinely surprised. "We're not?",  he says when Ripley says they're not leaving. Se goes in, gets the girl and barely makes it out.  Home free?  Not yet.  They've got the queen holding on to the ship.  What the heck?  A xenomorph, violent, fast, extremely effective, smart, bad assed, huge, vacuum resistant, nuclear blast resistant queen on the mother ship?  That's not fair James Cameron!  But it's exciting and makes for a great sequel to an already great first part.

If we wanted fair in the first place they wouldn't even have landed on LV-426 in the first place.  Or they would have warned the colonists, just to be double sure.  Or they would have fallen back on the first sight of acid damaged structures and barricades.  And on and on.  But it would have made for a very boring movie.  On the other hand James Cameron and Ridley Scott might be sick DMs, but they're good DMs.  They keep you hanging throughout the movie.  Give you good plot twists.  Put the characters in danger and pull them out just in time.

Enough talk about fairness and let's talk about balance.  Here's what I think about balance.  Balance is boring.  Balance sucks.  Balance is limiting.  Balance prevents you from playing the character you want to play.  Once you bind your character to the rules of "balanced" you forfeit all the other possibilities your character could be.  So what if you want to be the underdog.  Or maybe you want to be the super uber strong character.  You think your character is strong and all powerful?  Wait until you meet player 0 aka the GM.

Now this doesn't mean take out all the joker cards and start playing anything you want, blast the world, megadamage Rifts reincarnated.  It means don't bind your options to a need for preemptive balance.  By preemptive balance I mean try to balance the party prior to the adventure or worse yet independently from the adventure.  Trust me even the strongest character can find himself challenged with the proper setting, and the weakest shine given the right opportunity.  The setting is more important that the character in terms of defining balance.  Even a so called balanced character can outshine others in its party if the setting is incorrect, particularly if the setting is reiterative.  What use is a balanced party if all they meet are secret doors and locked portals?  Then only the thief enjoys the adventure.

As a player you need to be yourself and play your character for better or worse.  As a GM you need to explore alternatives.  You, the GM, are the balance in the game.  You're at the table seeing how much spotlight each player has.  No rule, no matter how well thought out or written can beat that.

Like I said in yesterday's DM advice.  If the player wants a motorcycle for the paladin give it to him and make him adventure for the gasoline.  If the player complains, give him the gasoline.  What's he going to do?  Load the whole party, four horses and three donkeys on the motorcycle and ride off?  He'll ride off quickly, but  find himself alone leaving his party behind.  He'll run out of fuel.  He'll get a flat.  The engine will scare his good horse away.

The options are endless.  Yes the motorcycle example is an exaggeration, but a good one.  A good one because it shows how balance is relative.  Yes, relative to setting.  What is weak in one case is strong in another.  What is strong in one scenario is weak in the other.  If you find your balance being universal you have a problem.  It means you've simplified your campaign setting to a point where a relative element has become a constant.

Not all party members need to deliver the same amount of damage per round.  Back to the Aliens example.  Ripley triumphed because she was creative and adapted.  She did not know how to drive the APC, she kinda guessed it.  She didn't know how to fire the rifle.  Hicks gave her a crash course with the weapon and she took off from there.  Burke was an interesting character and he never held a weapon.

Don't bind your campaign to balance promoting rules.  If James Cameron was a rule abiding GM he wouldn't have let Ripley drive the APC because she wasn't proficient.  Well she did crash it into the wall, but overall managed it.  James Cameron would also have said "Oh five minute training is not enough, you can't use the rifle nor the flame thrower.  Only the marine class can use those and you're just an unlicensed pilot".

Obviously if your adventure dwells on fighting room after room of monsters then yes weapons and fighting skill balance is important.  But if you break away from that and have different settings you'll realize that said "balance" quickly becomes more limiting than balancing.

GM the burden of balance lays on you.  It does not lay in the rules.  The rules may help.  But the more you rely on the rules for balance the less creative freedom you'll have for your setting.

Randomized narrative potential

We are predictable creatures.  If left alone we fall back to our habits.  How does this affect gaming?  Well if we fall into habits we're prone to select one outcome more often than another.  Reach a comfort zone, become a bit reiterative and lose narrative potential.

Randomness, particularly die generated randomness can help a  lot in moving away from these habits, to unload a great deal of the GMs burden on the dice and grant the GM more time to concentrate on what matters most: the story.  But it is also a potential curse.  If instead of unloading burden onto the dice we begin to run the game with dice we loose all narrative potential and the adventure becomes a series of unrelated events.  Let me explain a bit further.

There are some things that need to be determined in the game and should be random.  For example the hit points of the goblins.  If all goblins had the same hit points combat would be extremely predictable.  But actually having to think random numbers is an unnecessary burden for the GM.  It is better handled by dice or any other random generation mechanism.  Should there be 7 or 10 goblins.  Just roll some dice and let them sort it out.  This is an important tool, but not the one I want to concentrate in this article.

There is more to dice than just setting some level or value.  Die rolls can be successful checks or strikes, near misses or total flops.  Die rolls can be near saves.  The character fails the throw, but barely.  This buys him a bit more time.  The pick locks manages one turn, but doesn't fully open.  The picks and tools break or get stuck.  The fighter misses by so little she cuts some hair of the orc's head.  Dice don't need to be interpreted as yes/no, success/failure or other absolute values.  Some games already contemplate this in their rules, but others don't.  For those that don't I recommend you think die roll as partial success or failure as well.  It adds a great deal to the story.  The narrative is greatly enriched if you leverage that extra bit you get from the dice.

And for heaven's sake don't let dice take control of you adventure.  Personally I recommend cero random encounters.  If you do, use the dice as inspiration.  You meet what?  Centaurs ok.  It's not necessarily a combat encounter.  What random encounter tables can't tell you is what they are doing there.  Are they traveling, what are their interests.  What would you do if you were a centaur and this happened.  Random encounter tables can be good to get you thinking before the game.  During the planning phase.  Kick start your brain into thinking possibilities.  Roll some encounters.  Imagine them.  Let them break you away from that comfort zone.  Sleep on the idea.  Then settle down and make a real fleshed out encounter out of it.  To just roll random encounters during the game is in my opinion narrative suicide.  Stay away from it.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Going against the odds

So all this reading about balance and fairness has got me thinking why.  Why should it be balanced and above all why should it be fair?  A better word should be impartial.  Yes the GM should be impartial, but fair?  You're in a freaking adventure for frack's sake!!  Your characters are putting their lives on the line.  If they come back home label yourself lucky and call it a night.

Oh it's not fair I got hit.  It's not fair my character lost his sword.  It's not fair my character died.  Of course its not fair!  It's the whole point of going on adventure get over it.  You're going against the odds and trying to beat them.  If you succeed you're clever, smart, witty, resourceful, tenacious and even lucky.  But get over it fairness has nothing to do with it.  Yes the GM has to be impartial, not overly loading encounters or for heavens sake the dice themselves.  But fair?

What's all this about balance?  What is balance?  Balance is a euphemism for constraint.  Balance exists in the scenario it was measured for.  If you try to develop a different setting with the game rules there is no guarantee the balance will hold.  Heck there is no guarantee the balance will hold in the setting it was designed for as it is hard to believe the designers played out every possibility.  What's the main goal of balance?  That all players have an equal chance at participating in the adventure with their characters?  That all players have equal opportunity in a stereotypical adventure?  So there can be "stock GMs" that rehearse the same line over and over again with different backdrops?  To be fair?  But fairness doesn't exist.  Only adventure, risk and excitement.  The GM should provide the balance not the character class.  Let them be different and of varied strength.  Rather than bound with rules promoting "fairness" and "balance" inspire the GM to provide challenging adventures, plot twists, to look into the strength of characters and find weaknesses and use them.  Use them not to destroy the character or assail the player, but to provide intrigue, challenge, risk, excitement, twists and adventure.  Keep the players hanging on the edge.  As a GM you have the whole world at your disposal, use it.  Don't be limited preemptive  boundaries set for balance and fairness.  Those will come along the game and fairness will be replaced with the joy of triumphing in a challenging adventure in which the odds were highly against you and your fellow players.

D&D trim levels

Are we discussing the wrong points when we talk about what character strength should be 1st level strength?  Great deal of discusion has been going on regarding this.  D&D Next entry level characters are too strong.  Old school characters are too weak.  First level characters should have such amount of hit points or should have so much more.  They should withstand one hit or many.

Is that really important?  Obviously it impacts play and the adventure.  But is it something to write rules about?  Isn't it more of a campaign setting thing?  Shouldn't the rules work for all character strengths?  On one side we have the characters played by the players and on the other side the world played by the GM.  If character strength increases without a world difficulty increase then the game becomes easier.  Yet if the world difficulty increases with character strength difficulty stays relatively equal.  Which takes me to the next point.  If character strength remains old school and D&D Next 1st level characters remain as 1st Edition 1st level characters, but the world difficulty decreases the game also becomes easier.  Doesn't mean goblins now have half the hit points, but they could very well give twice or more treasure than they did before.  So overall the cost benefit improves in favor of the character.  But I don't see that being addressed anywhere.  Why?  At what point is the GMs position put in question?

As GM you have all the resources in the world to create challenging encounters or to make them very easy.  Yet that's hardly the point of the discussions.  Why?  Why isn't the GMs ability to set a world power level, to provide story twists, to challenge the characters individually, and to create a compelling story not placed in question?

Why is balance such an issue?  Are character classes good at everything?  No.  Sure, if you center your game around combat and play the same storyline over and over you can be certain players will specialize for it.  Is balance an issue due to a lack of imagination on the GM part?  Lack of flexibility by the rules?  Lack of what can be done in the game?  Tabletop RPGs unlike their computer equivalents are much more flexible.  The GM, live and sitting by the players is the source of all options, twists, changes, stories, etc etc etc.  I honestly believe there is where the secret to balance is.  Not in the rules although they help and not in the character classes either.  So why put the game's trim levels in the rules?

Monday, June 04, 2012

The Caustic Elf on "Bounded Accuracy"

I just read the latest scroll from Seabattle titled Bounded Accuracy and for all the wisdom granted to me at birth by the tree gods I can't make sense out of what they're saying.  It seems to be a collage of the undecipherable and the obvious.  I'll try to interpret it again after casting read bullshit on it as a 12th level magic user.

Let us start with this: "Conventional D&D wisdom tells us that the maxim "the numbers go up" is an inherent part of the class and level progression in D&D. While that might be true, in the next iteration of the game we're experimenting with something we call the bounded accuracy system." Let me try casting that read bullshit again.  Something must have gone wrong with the spell because I can't make shit of what they're saying.  Are they implying that progression now means numbers going down?  I can come up with a few cases in which numbers going down is a mark of progression: credit card payments, weight loss and unemployment rates.  None of which seems to apply to D&D.  So what the fuck are they coming up with?  Another number to hide a value that's already hiding another value?  Mhhh, I'm confused.  Did someone cast a baffle spell on me?  I don't recall rolling the saving throw.


"The basic premise behind the bounded accuracy system is simple: we make no assumptions on the DM's side of the game that the player's attack and spell accuracy, or their defenses, increase as a result of gaining levels.", but the numbers increase do wether you make the assumption or not. " Instead, we represent the difference in characters of various levels primarily through their hit points, the amount of damage they deal, and the various new abilities they have gained. ", vs prior editions which represented it how? Did you notice how it's all about damage and health and being strong to survive damage.  Where the fuck has role play gone?  Oh yea, probably scattered among those "new abilities".  "Characters can fight tougher monsters not because they can finally hit them, but because their damage is sufficient to take a significant chunk out of the monster's hit points; likewise, the character can now stand up to a few hits from that monster without being killed easily, thanks to the character's increased hit points."  This is wrong on so many levels its fucking infuriating.  We start out reading about the "bounded system", but they they forget about the 'no assumptions' on player's attack accuracy and defenses half way through the fucking paragraph.  How do they come about to deliver more damage?  Better hit bonuses, that's how.  How are the more resistant?  More hit points.  All those are increased numerical values that increase with level.  It's not due to a skill gained called "open your eyes" or "grip a sword tightly".  It's pure numeric advantage so I don't see the point in this 'Bounded accuracy' labeling they've got.  " Furthermore, gaining levels grants the characters new capabilities, which go much farther toward making your character feel different than simple numerical increases."  Wrong again. Two characters can have the same numerical values and still be two different characters altogether.  That's what role play is about.  Look it up for fuck's sake.  You're overstepping by trying to make the rules and mechanics fill in for role play.  It's not, get over it.


"Now, note that I said that we make no assumptions on the DM's side of the game about increased accuracy and defenses. This does not mean that the players do not gain bonuses to accuracy and defenses.", what?  I think these smart fellas mean to say that the DM should make no assumption as to 'the value' increase as clearly there is an increase.  It's the assumption on the rate or value that's in question.  So is this turd thought called Bounded Accuracy about increase or rate of increase.  It seems bounded accuracy is about bounded increases per level as we'll see next. " It does mean, however, that we do not need to make sure that characters advance on a set schedule, and we can let each class advance at its own appropriate pace. ", holy shit!!!  I sure hope they didn't do some uber long quest to an oracle to figure that one out.  Isn't that the point of class differences?  If classes didn't advance at their own appropriate pace, but rather at some other pace they'd be another class.  A class which advances at said other rate.  For example :" Thus, wizards don't have to gain a +10 bonus to weapon attack rolls just for reaching a higher level in order to keep participating; if wizards never gain an accuracy bonus, they can still contribute just fine to the ongoing play experience.", no fucking shit Sherlock.  A wizard doesn't have to gain a +10 bonus to weapon attack in order to keep participating.  If it did have to it wouldn't be a wizard class it would be a fucking fighter class!!!!  Holy shit this read bullshit spell is really kicking in.


"This extends beyond simple attacks and damage. We also make the same assumptions about character ability modifiers and skill bonuses.", you mean "not make the same assumptions", right?  Your editor should cast the read bullshit spell before editing this because it seems he's getting tangled in it.  You start off by making no assumptions about increased accuracy and defenses, but now you are making assumptions?  Which way is it? " Thus, our expected DCs do not scale automatically with level, and instead a DC is left to represent the fixed value of the difficulty of some task, not the difficulty of the task relative to level.", holy crap isn't this obvious?  I mean since when did DC checks increase with character level.  Isn't this stating the obvious?  You're making this whole article because your players increase DC values for the same exact physical lock as characters raise in level?  Fix that then.  

The article then goes on for quite some length touching other topics.  I'll go over them briefly as there is no fucking way this read bullshit spell lasts long enough to cover it all thoroughly.

Benefits of the Bounded Accuracy:

Getting better at something means actually getting better at something

Holy shit they figured that one out on their own?  Shit I could read that one out without the read bullshit spell.  Must be the one logical thing in the whole article.

Nonspecialized characters can more easily participate in many scenes

You can do that with a little thing called "role play".  Not everything needs to be about attack or defense.  In a role play game it is actually a good thing to once in a while get some role play done.  Secondly the issue with low level characters failing skill tests is due to the poorly done linear probability distribution mechanism.  Not the "bounded accuracy".

The DM's monster roster expands, never contracts

This one is always a kicker for me.  I remember back in the day I always asked were the fuck those goblins hid away.  When I was first level I'd go out of the city walls and encounter a couple of goblins that afternoon.  A year later I'm 6th level, I step outside the bastion towers and holy shit 25 goblins meet me.  Where the fuck where they?  What did they eat?  It's this lack of world economics that lets DMs do this and the truth is it gets boring after time.  It's a flaw in the system.  The increase in hit points to represent better fighting skills leads to monster inflation.  Fix hit points and you fix a lot of issues.

Bounded accuracy makes it easier to DM and easier to adjudicate improvised scenes

Crap.  I couldn't understand that even with the read bullshit spell.  

It opens up new possibilities of encounter and adventure design

Shit, have I been dungeon crawling so long?  Back in the day it was called henchmen.  What happened to those?  It was usually a good idea to engage a superior enemy with large numbers of sellswords.  Heck I even lead armies to battle.  As in real army combat system rules.  Is that gone now?  Shit.

It is easier for players and DMs to understand the relative strength and difficulty of things

This is sad.  Not only has mass combat systems been discontinued.  Simple math is a goner too?!?!!?  It's fucking easy to understand relative strength.  One creature has 1d8 damage and one attack another has 1d10 damage and 2 attacks.  That's 2.5 times more max damage 8 vs 20.  

It's good for verisimilitude

I love this part.  Even with the read bullshit spell at full blast I had trouble getting this.  It seems we need the "bounded accuracy" so easy things stay easy and hard things stay hard. So I enter a dungeon at first level and the chest is easy to open.  Then I go back five levels later and the same exact chest is now hard to open.  What the fuck happened there?  Are we adding a "bounded accuracy" system because some stupid player forgot the "common sense" system during playtest?  

I'll give you my version of the "bounded accuracy".  Play, plan and use common sense.  If you can't figure that one out no amount of added rules will fix it for you.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Really playing Era for the first time

Well last night on the bus from Guadalajara back to Mexico City a quick game started on Facebook.  Yea Facebook.  A small thread started in the local role play group inquiring about what RPGs are transformed into a game when asked "so what else do we need to start playing", I said "well you're role playing now as we speak".  No dice had been rolled, no characters created, just ideas of what the player wanted to be.  Two more players quickly joined the thread which became a chat and then another one joined the group and the chat.

Half an hour later one player was a monk traveling north and finding himself stranded in a walled city after the caravan he was traveling with  turned west and up river.  Needing to find a new party he became acquainted with someone who recommended a local guide (the second player).  Who is a rogue like character with "special" skills.  While waiting for the guide to arrive the monk meets the third player a gypsy bard who sings some tunes to his name.  A small brawl between the "guide" and the gypsy over the gypsy being a treacherous one.  Strangely a stampeding city guard forces the gypsy to decide between getting the coins hes earned singing or jumping to save these folks he just met.  He saves them and loses his gold.  At that point we stopped.  The last character a female elven ranger druid will have to join the group a while later.

I'm really interested in this game as it's the first time I use the rules with an inexperienced group of players.  The possibilities seem endless and they're not skewed by preconceptions of what RPG, of what can and can't be allowed by the rules.  I looking forward to keeping it like that.  The characters make the rules around simple mechanics.  The monk is a brewer who borders on alchemist as he's so good.  Some secret power will come from that.  Maybe beer potion making?  The gypsy bard sounds like a very interesting character.  Music and rogue put together.  A musical street wise character?  The rogue is the least polished one as the player joined in late.  Finally the elf will be the last to join the group.  We'll see how she turns out.

So far I'm thrilled at been saying "yes", "yes" and "yes" to things.  Nothing seems to prone to breaking the rules.  We are building characters based on pseudoclasses called templates and fine tuning them not based on skills, but rather roles.  Actually they don't know this, it's all going on in my head.  But the game's roles packed in collegia can then be built into game settings.  As a game master I'll later flesh out the gypsy collegia based on player interestes and my own ideas.  Which is what I'm looking for.  Going from player ideas/interests to roles to character creation.  Instead of proposing a character class to which the player must mold himself to.

The magic system seem to be able to supply all that is coming, alchemy? sure, druid spells ? yes.  Ranger and druid multiclassing, sure thing.   Just put the two collegia into the character and let her play it out.  She and the monk will be superbly strong characters.  Yet I'm not worried as the XP tax system will benefit the others.  The monk and the druid will rise slower now.  Letting the others level out.  Added to that the characters are playing what they want.   I think this is key in preventing max-min issues as they'll maximise their character no the character stats.  That means fleshing out to maximize character feel rather than character combat capacity.  I mean what better than being an alchemist-brewer.  That idea has me enthralled in the options for great role play.  Good starting point for so many things and quite a strong power if used wisely.

Well enough for now.  I'm just getting home.  Off to a shower and some rest.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Thoughts on D&D and Magic The Gathering

Well last Wednesday I had the opportunity to get back to playing Magic The Gathering which I haven't played for about two years.  It was with a group of players I just met, some of whom also role play.  The whole event gave me a lot to think about D&D.  The monsters were some kick ass things way stronger than I had played a few years back yet the rules where pretty much the same as when I started playing in the late 90's.  On top of that some of the players, who didn't role play, didn't do so because they though it was too hard.  To many die rolls and rules.  I was like are you kidding me?  Read these cards you have fifty something cards on your deck, complicated powers and compound powers, and spells, and enchantments, and what not.  A deck provides a huge combination, and that is only a subset of the combinations provided by Magic as a whole.

These players have hand picked those cards from a huge set of options.  Made a very strong setup of cards for play and yet they may win or they may lose.  It got me thinking why can't WotC owners of Magic also do the same thing for D&D.  No, I don't mean make D&D into a card game I mean:

  • Make D&D a game with long lasting rules.
  • Make D&D a game with simple rules.  The complexity in Magic appears in the cards not the rules.
  • Make D&D a balanced game no matter how strong the powers are.  Magic has standard cards and the special ones.  You can't play tournaments with the special decks, but you can have fun at home.  Yet even with the special decks it's hard to ensure a certain win.  There is still balance.
  • Make D&D a profitable game.
When I read the stuff coming out of D&D I see the opposite of Magic.  Very simple character classes (cards) and a very complex set of rules.  I wonder, shouldn't it be the other way around?  Shouldn't Mike Mearls and crew cross the isle and see what Magic is doing and get some tips?  For example:
  • Reduce D&D to no more than 10 rules or so.  Make it fit into 20 to 30 pages.  Like the basic edition.
  • Open up a zillion classes and powers.  Magic has the white cards, and the black ones, and the green ones, and the blue ones, and red ones, and probably more I don't know or recall.  It has creatures, and spells, and artifacts, and also more I don't know or recall.  Can't D&D do some equivalent to character class, skills, power, spells, etc.  with that?
  • Place the "modular" part on the "cards" (read: classes, spells, skills, powers) not on the rules.  Sell "modules" with ideas, thoughts, inspiration and all that which gets the campaign going.  Do what Magic does and "sell cards" or the equivalent you come up with for D&D.
Mike, based on your D&D Next if you were selling us Magic The Gathering "Next"  we'd get the following:
  • Forty cards.  That includes character classes, spells and some extra thing.  It would also be all the cards to ever exist in the Magic The Gathering "Next" universe.  Contrary to the thousands it actually has.
  • Three books (aprox 600 pages) on how to play Magic The Gathering "Next".  Contrary to the short booklet you get with the starter set.
Do you see the difference Mike?  Do you see how you're failing to fill us with inspiration, awe and desire to role play?  Your game is too freaking complex and has little substance.  Turn it around!!!  Give us a booklet of rules and a basic set of "sixty cards".  Then engage us with more and more "cards", not "rules".